There is a group of similar icon types utilizing figures set in the framework of a tree or vine or twining foliage, or else the same transformed into a geometric knot. Yet all are different types, and one must learn not to confuse them.
The first type is called in Greek Η Ριζα Του Ιεσσαι — He Riza Tou Iessai — “The Root of Jesse.” It is based on Isaiah 11:1, regarded by Eastern Orthodox as a prediction of the birth of Jesus:
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears.
This relates to the icon in that Jesse (father of King David) is the biblical ancestor of Jesus, and the type depicts a tree growing out of Jesse with other forefathers of Jesus (like a genealogical family tree) depicted in the branches. And of course the focus of the tree is Jesus. He is sometimes shown in maturity, sometimes as a child with his mother Mary. You may recall the basic tree growing out of Jesse as a secondary image in some examples of the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary.
Here is a Russian example of the elaborate type, known as Древо Иессеево — Drevo Iesseevo — “The Tree of Jesse.” The second type in this category is called Άνωθεν οι Προφήτες –“On High the Prophets” in Greek. It is taken from a Marian hymn by Ioannes Koukouzelis, chanted during Orthros at the vesting of the Bishop:
”Άνωθεν οι Προφήται σε προκατήγγειλαν.Στάμνον,ράβδον,πλάκα,κιβωτόν,λυχνίαν, τράπεζαν.Όρος αλατόμητον,χρυσούν θυμιατήριον,πύλην αδιόδευτον και θρόνον Του Βασιλέως προκατήγγειλαν οι Προφήται.Σε προκατήγγειλαν άνωθεν οι Προφήται.”
“Of old [lit. ‘On high’], the prophets earlier proclaimed you, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, the Tablet, the Lampstand, the Ark, the Table, the Mountain Unhewn, the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible, and the Throne of the King. you did the Prophets proclaim of old.”
The painter’s manual of Dionysios of Fourna describes it as having “The Holy Virgin, seated on a throne and carrying the infant Christ…all around the prophets are arranged.” The Patriarch Jacob holds his ladder, Moses has a bush, Aaron a budding staff, Gideon a fleece, David a shrine, Solomon a bed (or temple), Isaiah a spoon (or tongs), Jeremiah an image of the Virgin, Ezekiel a door, Daniel a mountain, Habbakuk a shady mountain, Zechariah a seven-branched lamp,
The Russian equivalent of the “Prophets from On High” type is a variable image generally called Похвала Пресвятыя Богородицы Pokhvala Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “The Praise of the Most Holy Mother of God.” Here is an example:
Τhe third type is called Η ΑΜΠΕΛΟC — He Ampelos in Greek — “The Vine.” It depicts Jesus sitting near the top of a many-branched grape vine, and around him in the branches are Twelve Apostles. It takes its name from John 15:5, and in fact that is the text generally shown in the open Gospels held by Jesus in examples of this type:
Εγω ειμι η αμπελος υμεις τα κληματα ο μενων εν εμοι καγω εν αυτω ουτος φερει καρπον πολυν οτι χωρις εμου ου δυνασθε ποιειν ουδεν
“I am the vine, you the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.”
And finally we have the rather uncommon Russian icon type favored by Old Believers, Союз любви — Soiuz Liubvi — the “Union of Love.” It depicts Jesus in the center (or sometimes the Crucifixion, sometimes a simple Deisis), of a diamond shape formed by part of a complex knot, with twelve Apostles in the other segments of it. In the four segments outside the diamond, the Four Evangelists are depicted in symbolic form: Matthew as a winged man, Mark as an eagle, John as a winged lion, and Luke as a winged ox. The type also relates to John 15 (see the end of this posting). While some versions use the knot as the framework, other examples replace it with twining vegetation.
The name is found in the Ode 5. Irmos from Great Thursday, the Footwashing Ceremony:
Союзом любве связуеми апостоли Владычествующему всеми себе Христу возложше красны ноги очищаху благовествующе мир/
‘United with the bonds of love, the Apostles offered themselves to Christ the Master of all things; when their beautiful feet had been washed clean they bring good tidings of peace to all.’
This does not begin to exhaust icon types featuring trees or vines, but these are the main types that utilize multiple figures in a tree, vine, or geometric configuration. A simpler vine-related type is the Eucharistic icon popular in Romania and called Iisus Hristos – Viţa-de-vie — “Jesus Christ the Grapevine,” also known as the “Mystic Winepress,” but I will save that for another day and another discussion.
To finish, here is the greater part of the relevant text from the Gospel attributed to John that forms the basis for such types as “The Vine” and “The Union of Love.”
15 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.
11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.
12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.
16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
17 These things I command you, that ye love one another.